11/16/2012 09:00 EST | Updated 01/16/2013 05:12 EST

Sleep Out Covenant House: CEOs, Celebs Spend Night On Street To Support Youth Shelter

teens problems
TORONTO - Some hardy CEOs and other notable figures traded in their comfy beds for sleeping bags on pavement overnight to raise awareness about homeless youth in Toronto.

Brian Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs' general manager, police Chief Bill Blair and Arlene Dickinson of TV's "Dragon’s Den" fame were among the 53 people who spent Thursday night in a chilly downtown parking lot outside the Covenant House youth shelter.

Burke said unlike street kids, participants will be back in their own warm beds Friday night.

"That's not what these kids face," he said. "A good dose of reality in a small amount. I'm happy to do it."

Blair noted Toronto police have a close relationship with Covenant House, which organized the event. Those who agreed to stick it out for the night had a sleeping bag and a piece of cardboard to sleep on.

"The unfortunate thing — it's from a very small box and I'm a very big guy," Blair quipped.

"They're all of our kids," he said. "They deserve our support."

Dickinson said the campaign sparked important conversations about the stigma that surrounds homelessness. But she admitted spending the night on the street was harder than she thought it would be.

"I think we all thought we knew what it was going to be like, but it’s one thing to kind of imagine it (and) it’s another thing to actually do it," she said, calling the Sleep Out event a learning experience for everyone involved.

Kristyn Wong-Tam, a city councillor who represents the Toronto Centre-Rosedale area, found the hardest part of sleeping outside was just trying to get comfortable.

"That piece of cardboard was a lifesaver. It acted as a cushion but also a form of insulation between us and the concrete," she said.

But Wong-Tam pointed out participants also had some "creature comforts" such as portable washrooms, a convenience that people actually living on the streets would not enjoy.

Some participants took to Twitter during the sleepless early morning hours to share their thoughts.

Dickinson tweeted: "I think staying awake is a good option at this point. Sore from concrete after just a few hours. Imagine how kids feel after weeks on street?"

Bruce Rivers, executive director of Covenant House, said the event raised more than $500,000 in donations to support the estimated 3,500 youth who turn to the shelter for help each year in Toronto.

The second annual Sleep Out, hosted by Covenant House in 12 cities across North America, marked the first time Canadian branches participated in the event.

(The Canadian Press, 680News)